TdF Stage18: Berets and Béarnaise Sauce

Yesterday was the second stage win for Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo, a team that is having quite a good Tour de France, despite losing team leader Alberto Contador. There was one curious moment when Majka grabbed hold of the antenna on the back of one of the television motorcycles as he passed it, which got him a £32 fine and a 10 second time penalty in his overall time for the Tour, but otherwise it was a masterful performance. We’ve no idea why he grabbed the antenna, but if it’s good luck, maybe he should try it again today.

stage 18

Today the race starts in Pau and it’s another mountain stage. It includes a climb up the Col de Tourmalet before ending at the ski station on the Hautacam. It will be a monstrous climb for the sprinters, who will do everything they can to hang on, but for the mountain-lovers and riders vying for the King of the Mountains jersey — Majka and Rodriguez, chiefly — it’s a brilliant opportunity to win points and even a stage.

Given the location of the race today in South West France, there were only three possibilities for wine regions to discuss: one of the three AOCs, Jurançon, Madiran or Béarn. We’ve opted for Béarn partly because it was the one we knew the least about. Everyone knows Béarnaise sauce, which was not invented in Béarn, but created and named in honour of Henry IV who was born in Béarn at the Château de Pau. But you may not realise that the beret gets its name from the Béarnese word berret, and is home to one of France’s remaining artisan beret-makers. What do we mean “the Béarnese word berret“? Béarnese is the language of Béarn and the most prominent dialect of Gascon. It was the language of Béarn when it was an independent state from the mid-14th century up to 1620, and was used even in official documents in the region until the French Revolution. It’s still widely spoken and currently undergoing a revival.

Sauveterre de Bearn, Pays Basque by Angelsansailes

Sauveterre de Bearn, Pays Basque by Angelsansailes

The Béarn AOC is a bit unusual in that some vineyards in the Jurançon AOC are allowed to produce red Béarn and some in the Madiran AOC are allowed to produce rosé Béarn. When the permitted vineyard areas for Béarn were classificed AOC in 1975, they were enlarged to contain areas that are not contiguous, which is how they overlap with the two neighbouring AOCs. Another smaller regional AOC, Béarn-Bellocq, was created in 1991 and centres around the village of Bellocq.

Just as an aside: The moment I saw a wine-making village called Bellocq I immediately thought of the French archaeologist who was the nemesis of Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He had the same name. Do you remember the scene when Marion tried to drink him under the table and failed because the wine they were drinking was actually made by his family and he’d drunk it all his life? I got carried away imagining they were drinking wine from the village of Belloqc, the very same vines in the Béarn-Bellocq AOC — but in checking I’ve discovered the French villain’s name was Belloq, with a different spelling.

Reds of the AOC must contain at least 50% Tannat, along with varying proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Fer, Courbu Noir and Manseng Noir. White Béarn wines must have 50% Raffiat de Moncade, along with Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc and Courbu.

The vineyards are in the foothills of the Pyrenees, but are saved from being too humid and rainy by the drying Foehn (or Föhn) winds from the mountains. The soil is chiefly a sandy clay over a clay and gravel substrate, which also helps drain water away from the roots of vines. A dry period in autumn allows grapes of the region longer hang time, which allows them to ripen more slowly and fully.

Unfortunately, it’s rare to see these wines outside of the South West of France, but if you should happen to see one, snap it up and let us know what it’s like. We’ll do the same.

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